Last month Pakistan held its largest women’s march – a collective feminist movement to bring women’s status closer to a human being and less close to a pet. Since then, there have been even more strides in the civil society – our films contain more feminist themes and our girls come out to bike en mass across major cities. There is one thing the movement didn’t have – a transgender representation.
Perhaps because of it, it is nascent; the cry for more women’s rights has been a largely horizontal fight. Women who can fight patriarchy with class privilege have gone on to call out men for their abuse, double standards and vulgar hate towards women. Intersectional women have been left out: Those below the poverty line, religious minorities, non-conforming femmes, and transgenders.
Yet, with that exclusion, feminism fails to achieve its intrinsic goal – to erase gender and by that to distribute status and agency by purely human standards – those that the state may uphold for each citizen equally and equitably.
Transgender people are trapped in a body that they do not identify with biologically. They may wake up as men when they are women in their consciousness, in their mannerism and in their dreams. It’s a prison that nature confined on them. Science backs the fact that it is not possible to undo this identity entrapment. Many cannot afford or perhaps even don’t want to gender-reconstruct. Therefore, they linger in the middle of the only two genders we allow socially and enforce through shame. They express themselves as women and perhaps nothing can be more unsettling to Pakistan than a man willingly, under no duress, identifying as a woman.
This is why anyone who wants rights for women must first want rights for the transgender community. They utterly defy the patriarchy’s pivotal assumption that any person born male would never want to give up that privilege. Also because the suffering and torture transgender people go through in Pakistan is worse than what women go through. That says a lot. A thousand honor killings of women annually in this country alone mean the transgender community is hunted down like dears in the Serengeti.
If you are a transgender person, the first thing you battle is an identity crisis. If you survive that clinical depression and the onslaught of social exclusion, you are driven out of any formal job market and the only thing available to you is begging for alms and prostitution where there is rampant extortion and sexual exploitation.
Good news though. A local TV channel took a bold step and hired Marvia Malik, the country’s first transgender news anchor. No ordinary woman and I say woman because she self-identifies as one, Marvia was kicked out by her family, put herself through journalism school and made it to the station despite the abuse and chronic harassment. She demanded that she be hired for merit and not gender.
When transgender people are typically on TV, they are on the receiving end of both humiliation and crass humour. Either that or they are absent. The role of an anchor, like Marvia, during prime time on TV is a huge step in mainstreaming transgender people into what society feels is respectable.
The UN Women Pakistan launched the laudable #ChangeTheClap campaign. Transgender people commonly begging on the streets clap their hands in a rotation movement symbolic of their entertainment quality. They only invoke either laughter or fear. The campaign clearly helped create the narrative that gender is non-binary, no matter how much clerics and parents want it to be. That transgender people deserve applaud, they do not deserve indignity.
Another development sector intervention supported and promoted by Marvia Malik is the country’s first transgender school in Lahore that teaches vocational skills aimed to mainstream them. It is aptly called The Gender Guardian and has been launched by an NGO – Exploring Future Foundation (EFF). With 30 enrolled, it is placed to grow and assist in integrating transgender people into the economy.
The development community cannot lead this alone. It has to be an indigenous and grassroots movement. One that women must take under their wing when fighting for women’s rights to equal pay, an end to violence, better electoral representation and more access to public spaces.
This dawned on me in the summer of 2016 when Alesha, a transgender woman, and coordinator of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Trans Action Alliance, ended up dead because of the universe’s most futile reason to be dead. She was shot in a gang action and when she was brought to the hospital, patients and their relatives complained that they didn’t want her accessing the male or the female ward of Lady Reading Hospital. Alesha died bleeding in a corridor because of neglect in a place where the broken are promised an earnest chance of healing through science. Sometimes transphobia trumps humanity.
In Pakistan it always does.
The transgender community needs feminists and those who believe in gender rights. It needs the government – not just handing them the third gender representation on identification cards – but real representation and access to employable scenarios. The transgender community needs non-transgender heterosexual men and their predicated patriarchy to let them go forth into the realm of femininity.
As Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born a woman. One becomes a woman.” Let’s reward and protect those that honor womanhood with their identity.